Kuwait set to enforce DNA testing law on all – Officials reassure tests won’t be used to determine genealogy

KUWAIT: The Interior Ministry’s General Department of Criminal Evidence building, where the DNA identification lab is located. — Photos by Joseph Shagra

KUWAIT: The Interior Ministry’s General Department of Criminal Evidence building, where the DNA identification lab is located. — Photos by Joseph Shagra

KUWAIT: The DNA testing law that will go into effect this year is aimed at creating an integrated security database and does not include genealogical implications or affects personal freedoms and privacy. Senior officials told Kuwait Times that the law, the first of its kind in the world, will only be used for criminal security purposes. When the law (no. 78/2015) is applied, it will be binding on all citizens, expatriates and visitors too. A Kuwaiti security delegation had earlier visited Washington to study DNA testing systems there.

The National Assembly passed the DNA testing law on July 2, 2015 that will be mandatory on everyone in Kuwait in order to fight crime and terrorism. Kuwait Times was given exclusive and rare access to the DNA lab located at the General Department of Criminal Evidence in Dajeej in an effort to learn more about the latest developments regarding the law.

Senior officials in charge of the project, who spoke to Kuwait Times on the condition of anonymity, explained how the database will be used, the process of collecting samples and privacy concerns.

In an effort to learn more about the latest updates with regards to the DNA tests that will be applied in Kuwait this year on citizens, expatriates and visitors, Kuwait Times conducted the following interview with senior officials in charge with implementing the project at the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Criminal Evidence:

A senior official at the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Criminal Evidence.

A senior official at the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Criminal Evidence.

Q: Tell us about DNA testing and what is its basic purpose?

Back in the 1980s, Professor Sir Alec Jeffery discovered that every human being has a different DNA print that could be detected in each person’s deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) in unencrypted areas and genes that cannot be affected or altered by diseases. This was a scientific breakthrough that had great impact on forensic medicine and helped identify culprits by matching samples of their DNA with evidence or crime weapons found at crime scenes using Locard’s exchange principle theory.

DNA tests have proven very effective over the past decade and have been used in solving many crimes by matching biological evidence collected from crime scenes with databases. Therefore, many advanced countries started building their DNA databases according to regulations that ensured information confidentiality, which is reassuring for people subject to the test, be they suspects or volunteers willingly donating their specimens to serve justice. The process started in the UK where authorities started collecting specimens from suspects in 1995, then developed to include larger segments of people.

The US comes second in this regard, as it started building its DNA database in 1998 and now includes DNA fingerprints of over 15 million people from all states. More countries gradually started following the same steps of utilizing DNA databases in criminal investigations.

Passing law number 78/2015 places Kuwait at par with those countries. Kuwait will have a database including DNA fingerprints of all citizens, residents and visitors. This law is the first of its kind in the world and Kuwait is the first country worldwide to apply the system.

A worker examines a sample using high-tech equipment at the lab.

A worker examines a sample using high-tech equipment at the lab.

Q: How will the test be used?

Deputy PM and Interior Minister Sheikh Mohammed Al-Khaled Al-Sabah formed a special committee to study the method of putting law number 78/2015 pertaining building a DNA database into practice. Preparations are in progress now to set the regulating charter and commence taking mandatory samples from all citizens, residents and visitors.

DNA tests will be done through specimens taken from individuals to match their DNA in paternity cases or as suspects in criminal cases. Specimens are often taken from saliva or through a few drops of blood placed on special cards. Specimens are then tested in labs according to international scientific and technical methods using special DNA examination equipment.

An official at work at the DNA identification lab in the General Department of Criminal Evidence.

An official at work at the DNA identification lab in the General Department of Criminal Evidence.

Q: How will the DNA samples and specimens be collected?

a. From Citizens: Collecting samples from citizens will be done by various mobile centers that will be moved according to a special plan amongst government establishments and bodies to collect samples from citizens in the offices they work in. In addition, fixed centers will be established at the interior ministry and citizen services centers to allow citizens give samples while doing various transactions.
b. From Residents: Collection will done on issuing or renewing residency visas through medical examinations done by the health ministry for new residency visas and through the criminal evidence department on renewing them.
c. From Visitors: Collection will be done at a special center at Kuwait International Airport, where in collaboration with the Civil Aviation Department, airlines and embassies, visitors will be advised on their rights and duties towards the DNA law.

A lab technician works on a machine.

A lab technician works on a machine.

Q: How will it respect privacy?

Privacy is undoubtedly the main concern of MiI in general and the criminal evidence department in particular. It is our duty to protect the privacy of each and every citizen and resident taking into consideration that the DNA law highlighted this in articles 9, 10 and 11. Clause (A) of article 9 of the law states that “Without contradiction with any stricter penalty stipulated by another law, individuals making job-related secrets public or revealing any DNA database information they might come across as part of job duties, will be punished by a maximum of three years in prison”.

Article 10 of the law also states that “Individuals forging DNA documents or knowingly using fake ones will be punished by a maximum of seven years in prison and/or a maximum KD 5,000 fine”. In addition, article 11 of the law states that “Without contradiction with any stricter penalty stipulated by another law, individuals who damage the DNA database will be punished by a minimum of three and a maximum of 10 years in prison”.

Technically speaking from a criminological point of view, a special work mechanism has been set for labs and sample collection, which will make it hard for lab staff and other staff dealing with the samples to identify the sources of those samples, by only using special barcodes on samples and specimens. Nonetheless, the executive charter is very strict with staff members dealing with the samples in order to win the trust of citizens, residents, visitors and anyone who has access to the database.

A worker uses a machine at the DNA testing laboratory

A worker uses a machine at the DNA testing laboratory

Q: In case of detecting any medical cases, how will you handle them?

The mandatory DNA tests only target non-encrypted genes that are not affected by diseases. The test is not done to diagnose any disease or obtain medical information because such information is part of individuals’ privacy and the law bans access to it.

Q: MoI has promised not to use the test for lineage or genealogical reasons. What are the guarantees it won’t do so?

This has been confirmed by the law itself. In addition, MoI plans building this database with the aim of limiting crimes and accelerate culprits’ identification. The database will be also used in case of natural disasters or major incidents that leave behind bodies that can only be identified through DNA tests.

Q: Will the law be applied to foreign visitors? What if they refuse to take the test?

Yes, the test will be mandatory for visitors. As the executors are responsible to collect and examine samples, we will notify relevant authorities about whoever refuses to give a sample so that they could apply the measures stipulated in the law. We will also coordinate with various airlines and foreign embassies in Kuwait so that all visitors can have a good idea about the law and the possible consequences of rejecting its procedures.

Q: What links the smart passport with DNA tests? Will providing a DNA sample allow the issuance of a passport regardless of the results?

There was a study to place all biometric data in one database, but after passing the DNA law number 78/2015, the law separated the DNA database. Although the procedures followed for issuing smart passports are done by the criminal evidence department, issuing all categories of passports is the responsibility of the citizenship and passports directorate.

A lab technician works on a machine.

A lab technician works on a machine.

Q: When will the mandatory DNA tests go in effect?

Sheikh Mohammed has already prepared the law’s executive charter and submitted it to the Cabinet. So, the law will go in effect once the Cabinet approves the draft in accordance to recommendations made in the law 78/2015 pertaining DNA testing.

Q: What about eye prints or retinal scans?

Eye prints (retinal scans) are not currently adopted as criminal evidence in Kuwait due to the presence of more accurate technologies including fingerprinting and DNA. Eye prints are used in some countries but there is no international cooperation in this field due to lack of international databases of eye prints.

By Hanan Al-Saadoun

This article was published on 23/01/2016